Even before I reached that disclaimer, though, I encountered an obstacle, in the first sentence of the foreword, where he writes that the work is based on research undertaken at Cheektowaga University in the mid-’70s. It struck me as odd that such an eminent academic would have spent time at such an obscure school, so I looked it up — and there is no trace of it. Mystified, I asked the town clerk and historical society in Cheektowaga, New York, about Cheektowaga University, and they told me there’d never been a Cheektowaga University. The Cheektowaga University referred to in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World is a mystery...
Onto the book:
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World is three separate books. The first is anthropology, the second is biblical exegesis, and the third is psychology.
All three expound on the concept of mimetic rivalry and the scapegoating mechanism. The basic concept is, once you understand it, actually very simple, and it comes across quite clearly in some of the interviews of Girard on Youtube. The idea is that human desire, as opposed to need, is based on mimesis — we want what others want/have. Accordingly, desire creates rivalry and thus violence, which is or can be resolved via scapegoating — finding a convenient valve through which to release the pressure of rivalry once it becomes unsustainable.
My own way of thinking about the theory, which may be flawed, is that we all take cues from others and follow scripts provided by others. It’s as simple as that — but then Girard applies the idea to hundreds of historical, literary, biblical, and psychological situations to extend the concept to surprisingly lengths.
One key claim of the theory is that the mimetic process at the scale of a community results in real, not metaphorical, violence. Over time, scapegoats are identified to contain and resolve the violence. As a civilization develops, those sacrificial acts are then ritualized and eventually define what is sacred and provide the basis for religion.
“The sacred is the sum of human assumptions resulting from collective transferences focused on a reconciliatory victim at the conclusion of a mimetic crisis,” he writes (or says, since the book is structured as a dialogue).
In saying that, he’s not trying to demean the concepts of religion or the sacred. That is, he’s not saying they’re meaningless, but in fact that they are or were necessary for resolving violence (in his mind, the sacred is the phlogiston to the oxygen of mimesis).
He goes to great pains to establish that literal violence was behind the origin stories of the religions of civilizations, and that the scapegoating — as in killing sacrificial victims — is a key part of most of human organization. This claim might be hard to follow since the rivalry that develops at the scale of a civilization is mediated through so many relationships and so many cultural norms. But the point, as I understand it, is that, as hierarchies change, allegiances change, and rivalries emerge, any adverse event from outside the community can leave any member of the community vulnerable to an accusation that makes him the scapegoat, no matter how flimsy the evidence or pretext — the so-called evil eye.
One possible extrapolation: In our highly developed, hyper-connected culture, the borders around these mimetic rivalries are so tightly policed that even the smallest apparent infractions lead to the most fevered accusations and the harshest public condemnations. One example, a very controversial one, would be that of the “January 2019 Lincoln Memorial confrontation.”
The incident created a controversy wildly disproportionate to the misdeeds alleged. To a visitor from a different culture, it would probably be hard to understand why the incident created a national uproar when, after all, no one was hurt, no property was damaged, etc. Perhaps the controversy could be understood as a mimetic crisis involving a highly contextualized and bitterly contested boundary between two rival factions, generated by an “accusation” by observers who happened to capture it on video and have the video picked up by the media.
Girard makes it clear that he thinks that real violence underlies the mimetic/scapegoating process. He goes so far as to theorize that humans domesticated animals only by accident while keeping them around to serve as literal scapegoats, on the basis that domestication takes too long for it to have been useful within a human lifespan, so animals must have been living with humans at first for non-domesticated purposes.
Furthermore, he argues that all human societies, as evidenced by the ubiquity of cults of the dead, link death with sacrificial victims, meaning that we identify deaths with the resolution of mimetic rivalry and thus the possibility of broader peace. “The tomb is nothing but the first human monument to be raised over the surrogate victim, the first most elemental and fundamental matrix of meaning,” he says. “There is no culture without a tomb and no tomb without a culture; in the end the tomb is the first and only cultural symbol.”
The thrust of the first book is that, contrary to other anthropological explanations (most prominently, those of Claude Lévi-Strauss), the mimetic process and the scapegoating mechanism are the basis of all civilizational myths, religions, etc.
Except, that is, for Christianity, which in Girard’s view is the exception that proves the rule.
He draws out his point about Christianity through surprisingly detailed biblical exegesis, reading back the mimetic process into the bibles, especially Matthew — Matthew 13:35, in which Jesus explains why he speaks in parables: "So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: 'I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.'"
Girard says that the mimetic process, and “religion” to the extent that it is part of the mimetic process, are Satanic. “Satan is the name for the mimetic process seen as a whole; that is why he is the source not merely of rivalry and disorder but of all the forms of lying order inside which humanity live.”
Jesus, by making himself the scapegoat, represents the reversal of that process: While in the mimetic process the killing of the scapegoat is what allows the community to escape violence/live, in Christianity the resurrection of the scapegoat is what allows for life.
“The rejected stone is the scapegoat, who is Christ. By submitting to violence, Christ reveals and uproots the structural matrix of all religion,” he writes/says, referencing Luke 20:17/Psalm 118.
Furthermore, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God represents “the complete and definitive elimination of every form of vengeance and every form of reprisal in relations in men,” Girard writes/says. Jesus instead demands that we “turn the other cheek.” That’s more than simply a rejection of violence that is random or chaotic, but rather a rejection of the whole structure of the mimetic/scapegoating process.
Two key points about Jesus from Girard: One is that “Saying that Christ is God, born of God, and saying that he has been conceived without sin is stating over again that he’s completely alien to the world of violence within which humankind has been imprisoned ever since the foundation of the world: that is to say, ever since Adam.”
Another is that Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice of the kind seen in the mimetic process. This is a tricky point that is belabored on for about 50 pages and which I have to say I don’t fully understand or appreciate, and one that seems to be in tension with, for instance, the language used by St. Paul (which Girard address), and the self-understanding of Christianity as represented, for example, in the Catholic mass, which refers to the crucifixion as a sacrifice.
As best I can understand it, the point is that “if Jesus’ death were sacrificial, the Resurrection would be the ‘product’ of the Crucifixion. But this is not so” — in fact it’s more the other way around: Jesus’ divinity is the cause of the crucifixion. To illustrate the point again, Girard draws a parallel between the mother of the child in dispute in the famous judgment of Solomon and Jesus: She wasn’t sacrificing the child when she offered to give him up rather than have him cut in two, but rather acting in order to save his life.
Girard seems to think that viewing Jesus as a sacrificial victim is about the highest-level conceptual mistake you can make, and one that modern thinkers are more or less doomed to.
He distinguishes between the logos of Greek thought, going back to Heraclitus, and the logos of Johannine thought, and notes that John starts off right away, in the Prologue to the Gospel, recognizing three times that the Christian logos is bound to be rejected by the world (that is, people who view Jesus as a figure typical of “religion,” that is the mimetic/scapegoating process). I.e., “the darkness comprehended it not...yet the world knew him not...and his own people received him not.”
He credits Martin Heidegger for recognizing the error of substituting the Greek logos for the Johannine logos in Christian and post-Christian thought, and for placing the antecedent for the Johannine logos in Jewish rather than Greek thought.
But he goes further. He is, interlocutor Jean-Michel Oughourlian says, “seeking for one single distinction: the absolute distinction between the Logos of violence, which is not, and the Logos of love, which is.” While the Logos of love might be rejected, there is some comfort in the fact that “its expulsion is revealed in a more and more obvious fashion.”
Furthermore, he explains later, the Adam and Eve story establishes the relationship between God and humanity in terms of expulsion — but a reversal from that in the prologue to John.
Bringing it all together: “All the grand theories of modern times, and all forms of thought in the human sciences in the world of politics, have a bearing on the victimage processes, and issue their own condemnations of these processes. But these condemnations are invariably selective; they are arranged against each other, with each way of thinking concerned to brandish its ‘own’ victims in the face of others.... taken as a whole these ways of thinking can only prepare for the revelation of the victimage process in all its breath as the founding process of culture. They are all unconsciously working toward the vindication of the very texts that they claimed have put behind them.”
That is a launching point for the third book, which is mostly a comparison of the psychology implied by mimetic desire (and captured in great literature such as Shakespeare, Moliere, and Dostoevsky) and that of Sigmund Freud. It’s also more self-referential and even harder to follow than the first two books.
“All of modernism in its classic stage — with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in the forefront — merely offers us scapegoats,” Girard says.
There is a lot here to digest, and much of it that probably escaped me. There are...provocative… discussions of such topics as hypnosis, homosexuality, and “coquetry” that seek to explain certain behaviors through the mimetic process.
But eventually he brings it back round to Matthew, saying that Matthew 18:5-9 (“But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.”) represents “the very best of psychoanalysis.”
By that he means: “The skandalon is the obstacle/model [Note: In Girard the model is the person from whom one is taking mimetic cues, who becomes an obstacle when what is desired can’t be shared] of mimetic rivalry; it is the model in so far as he works counter to the undertakings of the disciple and so becomes an inexhaustible source of morbid fascination. This is exactly opposite to how love in the Christian sense works: ‘He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling [skandalon]...’” (1 John 2:10-11)
The millstone, meanwhile, is a symbol of repetition, as it’s turned by donkeys, representing mimetic rivalry/violence.
Girard says that Freudian psychology, in contrast to the understanding of scandal in Matthew, assumes that the individual being is rooted in scandal and that parricidal or incestuous desire is the condition for the development of consciousness. He argues at length that the mimetic rivalry model better explains those phenomena with fewer internal contradictions.
In ending this section, he again brings it back to...Satan: “the fact that hell and Satan are both associated with scandal is a further proof that the latter can be equated with the mimetic process as a whole,” he says.
And then he returns to a discussion of where “modern thinking on desire” (“from Hegel to Freud, from Heidegger to Sartre”) goes wrong in applying an Old Testament lens to the New Testament understanding of the Skandalon.
Leviticus, he writes, shows that “the law is far from being an obstacle and a temptation for humankind; on the contrary: it is the first attempt to eliminate obstacles and foresee the circumstances of human violence. It is fathers and sons, neighbors and friends, who become obstacles for one another. The Old Testament gets very close to this truth, but it does not make it finally clear; it does not really make this truth its own.”
Stray highlighted passages:
— Monarchs as scapegoats: “strange union of exalted sovereignty and extreme subjugation”
— “What appears to us to be Yahweh’s violence is in fact the attempt of the entire Old Testament to bring to light the violent reciprocal action of doubles” which reaches climax in the Gospels
— Regarding Psalm 118: “The rejected stone is the scapegoat, who is Christ. By submitting to violence, Christ reveals and uproots the structural matrix of all religion”
— Girard says that his interpretation helps elucidate Jesus’ odd “get behind me, Satan” remark to Peter: Peter was telling Jesus not to go to Jerusalem and suffer crucifixion. In doing so he was viewing Jesus’ death as part of a mimetic crisis/scapegoating/Satanic way, rather than in a Christian way
— A comparison of today’s threat of nuclear war with past cycles of violence: “Either we are moving ineluctably toward nonviolence, or we are about to disappear completely. But precisely because the present situation is an intermediary one, it allows mankind to avoid the enormous problems it now poses.”
— The conclusion at the very end: The road to the kingdom “is an easy one since the very real barriers that await us are nothing compared to the obstacles raised up by metaphysical desire...following Christ means giving up mimetic desire.”